Philip Peterson, 28, of Lakeland was charged with DUI after driving his Toyota Corolla into Lake Hollingsworth. | Cindy Glover, LkldNow

In addition to invasive weeds and plants, city Lakes & Stormwater Division staff helped pull something else out of Lake Hollingsworth on Wednesday morning – a partially submerged Toyota Corolla.

Lakeland police and fire officials received a call at 4:28 a.m. that a man and woman were in distress, stranded on the roof of a sinking car that had careened down Ingraham Avenue, over a curb, across the sidewalk and about 150 feet into the lake.

The incident happened just west of Florida Southern College’s boathouse and dock, with its distinctive red gate featuring a water skier.

The Lakeland Fire Department used a boat to bring the couple to shore.

According to the police report, driver Philip Peterson, 28, of Lakeland, said he and his passenger were on their way home from a friend’s house and he “wasn’t paying attention” when he drove over the curb and into the lake.

However, Officer Nicholas Riggall wrote that Peterson had “bloodshot watery eyes, slow slurred speech, a flaccid muscle tone in his face, and the strong odor of an alcoholic beverage emanating from his breath and person.”

Peterson was arrested at 5:28 a.m. and charged with DUI and damage to property, plus an additional charge because his blood alcohol level of .17 was more than twice the legal limit. 

The 25-year-old woman with him had lacerations as a result of the crash and was transported to Lakeland Regional Health by Polk County Fire Rescue.

Police waited until daylight to figure out what to do about the partially submerged black sedan. Lake Hollingsworth has an average depth of four feet, so the vehicle did not have far to sink. It came to rest on its side with the driver’s door open. 

Sgt. Bob Bernhardt, head of LPD’s dive team and violent crimes unit, surveyed the scene in the morning and realized there was so much vegetation around the vehicle, the situation called for an airboat, not divers. 

Fortunately, he knew exactly who to call. 

Bernhardt said Heather Harrison, an environmental tech with the city’s Lakes & Stormwater Division, formerly worked for the police department. He reached out to her and by 9:15 a.m., Harrison was there at the helm of an airboat with two colleagues on the deck.

The trio struggled to connect a towing line to the car. At one point the airboat got stuck in a thick patch of hydrilla, water lettuce, hyacinths and branches. Police asked maintenance workers from Florida Southern College for loppers or other cutting tools.

Finally, at 9:54 a.m., a team from Webb’s Towing & Recovery successfully pulled the vehicle out of the water. A section of Lake Hollingsworth Drive west of Ingraham Avenue was closed for about half an hour, but the road reopened shortly after 10 a.m.

Bernhardt said it was the first time LPD has reached out to Lakes & Stormwater for assistance, but he was pleased and grateful for the help.

“This was a first,” Bernhardt said. “It worked out really well.”

After the emergency vehicles left, the dense vegetation quickly reclaimed the spot where the car had been, leaving almost no trace of the accident. The overgrowth, with many invasive and nuisance plants, is an environmental problem the city is about to tackle.

The Lakes & Stormwater Division is embarking on a $25,000 project on Monday to reduce some of the thick aquatic vegetation in Lake Hollingsworth. The project is scheduled to run from June 5 through August.

In a news release, city Communications Director Kevin Cook said the effort will “promote plant diversity for habitat improvement, open drainage corridors for improved water flow, and enhance water quality.” The harvested vegetation will be turned into compost.

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Cindy Glover moved to Lakeland in 2021 after spending two decades in South Florida. Her career has included journalism, education, digital marketing and public relations. She worked for the Albuquerque Journal and South Florida Sun-Sentinel and spent a year as a community engagement coordinator for the City of Lakeland before joining LkldNow.

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